Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa


Studied Skills? globalizations • barely managed markets • wider • higher education • learning • deconstructions

John Webb

Centre for Learning Knowing and Interactive Technologies (L-KIT), in the research programme Culture and Learning in Organisations (CLIO) http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/Education/clio.htm

University of Bristol, England Graduate School of Education, 35 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1JA, England Tel: +44 (0)117 928 9000 Fax: +44 (0)117 925 1537 Email: [email protected]

This reverie on the university and deconstruction involutely promotes the myths of The Learning Society. Recent policy-spinning functions of academic business have jointly revived this long-standing, communitarian notion. They seek economically to redeploy it alongside the university's degree-conferring, society-researching, education-legitimating essence. Here we (so to speak) barely manage to assume a global, Foucauldian vantage-ground so as to overhear the market-speakings (agoras) of wider and higher education. Some canny discursors elude our borrowed, totalizing genealogy. We stumble after their headings through hawkers of realism, relativism and politics of difference. We settle exhausted by the stile of the academy for a median listening of Derrida's deconstructions. In so attending we affirm the chances that societies may learn; always have done and always will. As if for the first time people gather to question the university of learning. Slowly we come to study that which is complacent and intractable.Yet more skilfully may we examine, embrace and envelop the unthought into a sheltered space of interruption, in many folds of an inexhaustible "Why? For what reason-for-being?"



Conventions for seeing or listening

In this paper I sketch a critical approach to questions of wider and higher learning. This approach concerns the raison d'être(1) of the university. I work through a Foucaldian genealogy to arrive at a certain aporia (difficulty of passage). That prompts me to consider a particular reading of the French thinker, Jacques Derrida. Some dogmatic opinions that infuse Derrida's reputations(2) arise in part from what he (picking up from Martin Heidegger)(3) called deconstruction. Or rather, one should say: deconstructions, since there can be no one such universal act, thing, theory or practice; still less an iterable process or method.(4) Perhaps one may refer to a situated activity, to deconstruct, as an approach or style that resists repetition, yet cherishes patterns of orderly structure as implying a certain centrality as a target for critique. Yet one cannot segregate texts into classes of the 'deconstructive' and 'deconstructible'. Their openings are always already embedded, though often unthought. There are evident patterns in overtly deconstructive texts - or texts towards deconstruction, as an inconclusive activity - that leave them precisely open to critique, including deconstructive critique. One such convention is an artful awkwardness in handling beginnings, titles, signatures and retrospective forewords, lest they convey synoptic closure from a web of intertextuality and each reader's prerogatives. Have we (so to speak) started yet, in keeping with such conventions and any eventual agreements amongst us? The title of this paper is a dis-articulated meld of those used for three diverse 'abstracts' of it. Those abstracts were written before the visual presentation of which this paper is more-or-less a verbal rendering.(5) That renders each abstract a simulacrum or copy of something that might appear but never fully exists. Please read the bold dots (•) between the phrases of the title - perhaps as in Wolfreys (1988) and elsewhere - as marking indeterminate, supplementary relations, both adding and substituting, whose attempted resolution would reduce the potentials of the text. Since this is a work in progress, and any results may not in principle be transferred between contexts, I shall dwell on the industry of the piece.

Broadly speaking, the phrase studied skills may refer to students' and researchers' explicit attention to their proficiencies for work, including academic efforts. Equally it may refer to purposive (studied) arts of promoting and resisting factional, national and globalising ends. Whatever you make of this topic or web of topics, please attend to its complicity with whatever is critiqued. I would claim to be motivated by an interest in reform of institutions, even where that is programmed by consultative decree. However I cannot escape the language of categories and oppositions in such terms as: student, university, academic, education, politic, society, national, global, etc. Also, this paper covers a lot of ground in a reductive manner, so please treat it as an approach to a dissertation yet to be written. Here is a concise version of what my dissertation is about. It may be read in both senses of 'referring to' and (colloquially) 'up to': "Basically, this dissertation is about relations between higher education and the ideal of a socio-cultural community."(6) The project is one of many within an 'umbrella' (literally: a small shadow) of a research theme, 'Culture and Learning in Organisations' at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. On a national scale, initiatives of reform tend to be subsumed into grand narratives that may cast large shadows, as it were, in space and time. In Britain The Learning Society has recently emerged(7) as a inspirational ideal for consensus-seeking activity among diverse interests. One might assume that the university would form an integral part of this discourse or language-structure, or even constitute its origin or chief protagonist. Indeed, particular universities may be more or less bound by their national and cultural contexts. Yet the university as a commonplace concept or set of forms and practices has long since escaped into - or was always already beyond - strict compliance with national political priorities. Perhaps like a national airline, a university system is an accessory no self-respecting regime would be seen without, even though some of its vital components may privately seem outmoded or inappropriate. To convey a certain cultural heritage, or to catch up with occupational backlogs, one may say: appropriately outmoded. To transfer technologies between cultural aggregates one may call for re-appropriated modernity. In each discussion, the stakes involve a certain complacency of enjoyment and watchful anxiety over survival.

The next few paragraphs of this paper outline the context of my project in and regarding Higher Education, and my initial approach to examining its discourses in loose accordance with the philosophical work of Michel Foucault. The middle part focuses on the narrative or myth of The Learning Society, and my manner of reading it. In the latter I dwell on a distinction between that reading of Jacques Derrida - based mainly on the work of Christopher Norris and Andrew Benjamin - and more usual mis- or non-readings of Derrida. The final section includes a parting gesture towards a further approach that I set out to pursue, but have - with regret - deferred. It also expresses my hope that a deconstructive approach may interact with others and perhaps help societies re-absorb closures of complacency with studied skills.

In his essay The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils, (1984, p.8, citing Aristotle's De Anima 421b), Jacques Derrida cites Aristotle's distinction between humans (as rational beings) and animals "with hard eyes and a dry glance". What is terrifying about such an animal, lacking eyelids, is that it always sees. Thus it can never "close itself off in the darkness of inward thought or sleep". Derrida claims that "The university must not be a sclerophthalmic animal, a hard-eyed animal...". He asks "What can the university's [teaching] body [le corps enseignant] see or not see of its own destination, of that in view of which it stands it ground? Is the university the master of its own diaphragm?"(8) . . . "the better to listen, remember, and learn." Taken out of context, such questioning of the essence or grounds of university education may seem obsessive. The university as a commonplace notion and a pattern of characteristics may seem clear enough. Indeed, the university may serve as the paradigm of the modern institution with traditional underpinnings. Peter Scott's model (1984, p.36) of the evolution of national higher education systems reminds us that the meanings of education in general and higher education in particular have been repeatedly challenged and transformed. Hence, the whys (i.e. causes) and wherefores (ends) of the university are contested in fierce and public ways, as well as quietly and privately. Perhaps the most significant feature of the pursuit of histories and policies is the appearance of reform, or a Scott puts it, 'simply rationalisations of the status quo'. (Scott 1984, p.42) When I started this project - at least, at the stage I now rationalise as its origin - I intended to analyse materials for self-tuition in study skills by students. These materials, I supposed, would construe the student in ways that would reflect tensions between viewpoints regarding whatever higher education and learning might be intended or supposed to achieve. It seemed anomalous to me that universities were overtly (though often reluctantly) engaged in outright training of students to study. As I considered such provision, the long-held notion of transferable skills appeared to gain ground against traditional academic disciplines. I began to shift my attention from tuition materials(9) to the discourses in which they were framed. I adopted the phrase wider versus higher education (or, with different connotation: learning). The transformation of higher education that Peter Scott (1995, p.37) tentatively proposes as current or imminent is that of stratification through divergent corporate missions. In it, some universities at least would emerge from or withstand supposedly unified system by flaunting their élite status, thus scorning incentives to widen access and curricula. Anthony Smith and Frank Webster (1997) sketch the postmodern university as responding to market forces rather than public interest. According to Brian Salter and Ted Tapper (1994), since the British university system ceased to align itself with national priorities in the 1960s, relations amongst the state, funding agencies and universities have been marked by pursuits of long- and short-term interests, manoeuvres and shifts in power. The state made repeatedly sought a unitary ideology with which to move against the traditional liberal autonomy of the academy. Thus a notion of the postmodern university is broadly consistent with the managed market viewed (in Salter 1994, pp.201-3) as a compromise extracted from state agencies by the New Right's market forces ideology.



Genealogy of discourses of wider and higher education

To address the cacophony of voices or positions amongst theorists of wider and higher education, I tried to graph each of many discursive positions according to the images (so to speak) that it projected onto other (imagined) positions in the debates. I would tentatively name a discursive position, then project from it some broadly favourable and adverse perceptions. I used samples of texts from formal publications and the Internet to support my readings. Whereas the polarised language grossly over-simplified those relations, I did not try to 'smooth out' contradictions. For instance, what I called curricular nationalists might dismiss academicists as 'mere theorists' yet paradoxically admire learnedness in classics and the sciences, and promote academia as a flagship of national prowess. That analysis would ideally be conducted in an exploratory manner, i.e. without a particular telos in view. I eventually sketched the skimpily-explored relations on a single graph. That gave an impression of the myriad ways in which discursive positions variously constructed themselves in affinity with, strategically towards, and in opposition to, other imagined positions. The composite model suggested icon phrases that are shared between discourses, albeit with distinct or overlapping meanings.(10) It also suggested that some sup